How to Duck Dive & Turtle Roll

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You’ll never make it out into the lineup unless you duck dive!

Alex Rogers to Rick Kane, North Shore 1987

Rogers’s advice to Rick Kane is key as he attempts to paddle out to surf in the ocean for the first time. If you’re a new surfer, learning how to get out to the waves is the first step to actually trying to surf them.

The two main techniques to get under waves are the duck dive and the turtle roll – which one you’ll use will depend on the type of board you’re surfing.

Without duck diving or turtle rolling when a wave is about to break on you or when whitewater is coming towards you, you’re taking the full power of the wave head on, and you’re going to get pummeled and sent backwards. This can work to drain both your energy and your motivation. Learning and practicing these techniques early will help you get better at surfing faster.

Remember: Avoid ditching your board.

How to Duck Dive a Surfboard

If you’re on a shorter board, say up to about 7’6″ or so, you’ll be able to duck dive under the waves.

Compared to a turtle roll on a longboard (see below), a duck dive allows you to keep your paddling momentum more easily.

You can duck dive under waves that have already broken into white water or waves that are about to break.

To duck dive a wave:

  • Paddle hard and straight towards the approaching wave or whitewater.
  • Once you’re right in front of the breaking wave, grab the rails at your chest and push the front of the board down deep at an angle.
  • Pull your body towards the front of the board if you need to get deeper.
  • Using a foot or knee, push the tail of the board down to get the board more parallel to the bottom of the ocean.
  • Lift your other leg up to help force more weight over the tail.
  • Pull yourself under and closer to the board. The deeper you’re able to get yourself, the easier the wave will pass over you.
  • If the waves are particularly big and power, you may need a kick or two once your underwater.
  • As the wave passes over you, point your point towards the surface, resurface, and continue paddling.

How to Turtle Roll a Surfboard

If you’re on a longboard or a mid-sized board, it’s probably going to be too big for you to duck dive. This is where the turtle roll comes in.

The turtle roll involves flipping over the board and getting yourself underwater holding it down as the wave passes overhead.

The turtle roll becomes necessary in bigger waves that you cannot simply paddle over and push through.

To complete a turtle roll:

  • Paddle hard and straight towards the breaking wave or whitewater.
  • Grab the rails right around your shoulders, take a deep breath, flip the board, and roll over when you’re about a body length or 3-6 feet in front of the approaching wave.
  • Try to keep the nose pointed down to avoid it catching on the wave and pulling you with it.
  • Hold on tight. It can help to wax your rails a bit.
  • Stay loose underwater and avoid wrapping your legs around the board.
  • Depending on the size and power of the wave, you’ll need to determine whether to extend your arms and keep your body vertical or whether to pull the board closer to you. The farther you are from your board, the more difficult it will be to hold – the extension technique is best for small to medium sized waves.
  • Once the energy of the wave has passed, kick your legs, pull one rail and push the other to roll yourself back on top of the board.
  • Continue paddling.

Pushing Through Small Waves, Whitewater, and Shore Break

If the waves are small enough or you’re just trying to get out past the whitewater, you don’t need to turtle roll or duck dive every time. If you’re on a longboard, having to turtle roll constantly would be a huge pain, and on a shortboard, you might not have enough depth to duck dive effectively.

This maneuver, sometimes referred to as a push-up or punch-through, is kind of like a duck dive without diving under the wave. It’s designed to allow the wave’s momentum to pass you and prevent you from getting pushed back too far.

This method is great for simply getting past the shore break. Bigger waves will require using one of the methods described above.

To push through a wave as you’re paddling out:

  • Paddle hard and perpendicular towards the oncoming wave.
  • Grab the rails and press down on the front of the board.
  • Use your feet to weight and unweighted yourself and your board as necessary. (i.e. bring a leg and foot up under your chest if needed).
  • Allow the whitewater to pass and continue paddling out.
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